Beautiful Biochemical Ballet Revisited: Implications

By Gradient · May 11, 2010 · ·
  1. Gradient
    Throughout my fortunate education, I've endeavored to cultivate as accurate an image - in my mind's eye - as possible, to help portray the turbulent realities of our cellular interactions. The heuristics popularly employed to communicate such concepts did the job intended, but failed dramatically at imparting even an approximation of what really must be going on. The 'lock-and-key' analogy for receptor-ligand interactions, or even the Hodgkin-Huxley model of the neuron - all of which are tremendous milestones in human understanding - are purely heuristics, and aren't even intended to provide anything more than a heuristic might provide. With a somewhat unorthodox tool - psychedelic spatial suggestively, coupled with graphic depictions - the chimp has made personal strides in enhancing these heuristics, and he'd like to take this opportunity and share this image with whomever might be interested.

    This gorgeous video may help illustrate the fragile depictions I'm considering:

    A while ago, I proudly wrote a little entry entitled Serendipitous Lessons from Psychedelic Side-Effects, a sort of manifesto that I still readily embrace. One element, however - arguably the central thrust of the entry - was an appreciation for the fragile and seemingly choreographed dynamics between neurochemical participants. A "beautiful biochemical ballet". This image, however elegant & romantic, is not the image that's survived years of subsequent exposure to cellular studies. Rather, our nervous system is more similar to a game of roulette or pinball; chance, it seems, plays too significant a role in our neurons' behavior to be neglected in favor of a more aesthetically pleasing image of a graceful dance. Accordingly, our honorable attempts at defining which sedative is 'the best', or identifying the 'more euphoric' psychedelics/stimulants - are inevitably folly.

    The human nervous system is a bricolage of interacting systems - a mishmash of processes that evolved out of chance. The interactions between them are elegant and complex, and have permitted humans to be the single most adaptive organism in the history of the known universe. It's important to maintain, however, that these systems weren't designed to function as they do - they were simply the most successful alternative at the time, the most adaptive. Accordingly, nervous system function is rarely optimal. For example, there's a distinct difference between editing a book while reading to one's-self compared to reading aloud; different brain regions are recruited for the different processes - and reading aloud literally connects disparate brain regions that wouldn't have otherwise been capable of interacting (auditory language processes to subcortical language processes). In all reality, the systems are a mess. We strive daily to compensate for the fact that our primate nervous systems evolved to hunt and gather cooperatively, not necessarily to accommodate the panoply of stressors comprising modern life. We've done a damn good job, too.

    Everything changes. Fast. Too fast to follow, really. And though things seem to remain the same, and our consciousness relatively stable - this is merely a testament to the resiliency of our redundant neurophysiology, and NOT to its precision. People regularly make mistakes; mistakes in judgments, beliefs, and perceptions are an intimate component of the human experience - in fact, homo sapiens would never have even appeared without rare mistakes in genetic replication. Chance, mistakes, uncertainty - these are the unquantifiable features of our daily experiences that seem crucial in coloring the qualitative aspects of consciousness. In short, it's quintessentially human to err.

    There is a continuous criticism of the neurosciences - namely, of the ability to grapple with the truly interesting questions of human consciousness. Will we ever be able to generate a neurophysiological model for something as intangible, unquantifiable, and subjective as consciousness? This conversation obligatorily recruits participants from disparate disciplines; cognitive & cellular neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, computer engineers & programmers, linguists, cybernetic researchers, genetic researchers, and heaps of others have contributed significantly to an extremely convoluted conversation of the human mind. While it may be clear where my allegiances lie, I've found this dialogue to be largely fruitless - and tends to dance around potentially productive issues with analogies and sub-optimally intuitive thought experiments. Don't get me wrong; talking about consciousness is almost always fun, regardless of the inevitability of no absolute conclusions. However, given the significance of unpredictable chance - expressed even at sub-molecular levels - why even try to localize consciousness to certain circuits? What would be the benefit, if it were even possible? In my opinion (as well in the opinion of my most respected peers), consciousness can't be anything but an emergent property of our patchwork nervous system - presenting a spectrum of complexity rather than a threshold designating conscious or not.

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  1. Crazy Insane Sanity
    I couldn't agree more! This is why I find complex adaptive systems so interesting. :)

    Thanks for the excellent read!
  2. Gradient
    Thanks for reading! I knew I'd catch your eye if I brought up consciousness, CIS =).
    Hope all is well with ya.
  3. Crazy Insane Sanity
    All is fantastic! I'm starting my first psych course here in a couple weeks. Pretty soon we'll be having all sorts of intriguing conversations about the complexity of consciousness! I'm excited, lol. :D
  4. Synesthesiac
    This is probs the best place to ask I guess; Is it true that every two years every cell in our bodies has been regenerated? So in effect you have a new cellular body within two years?

    If true surely this says something (either profound or prosaic) about the nature of consciousness, and what is in control of the material self?
  5. Gradient
    It's certainly true that parts of the body are replaced quite regularly - though I've heard figures from every 2 years to every 10. However, it might be important to note that the vast majority of the CNS is never replaced (boo!). There are parts that undergo neurogenesis until death, such as the olfactory bulb and dentate gyrus - and such regeneration is absolutely salient to the evolution of one's consciousness - but the rest is a product of our inherited genetics.

    That said, epigenetics presents what I'd consider to be a fertile springboard for a discussion regarding an individual's control over its own consciousness - in the context of 'nature vs. nurture'. Aside from being one of the coolest areas of research around today, it suggests that our inherited genes are subject to evolution within one's own lifetime as a product of experience.

    Hope all is well with you, Synesthesiac!
  6. Synesthesiac
    Thanks a bunch, interesting stuff. And I'm fine thanks :)

    You mentioning epigenetics has reminded me of an old thread I started at jref forum about epigenetics, as I knew that a lot of people used to more traditional theories would put up a good argument against it. I've been interested in epigenetics ever since reading a year or so back dawson churchs "The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention". Which has some super references in it, as well as some dubious ones ("chakras", etc). I got the thread title wrong, and many of my facts too (I learn by mistakes!) however, which lead to much confusion in that thread. But I think I put forward a good case and a good set of references in all as the thread progressed.
  7. Gradient
    Wow, that forum is full of self-important assholes! I don't understand why such regularly-posting members would think so aggressive an approach would help one to learn...anything. Especially if technical papers are 'dry and brain-numbing'.

    Here's a few names to fuel your fire, if you're interested in continuing to try to discuss your point. Seymour Benzer, a pioneer of behavioral genetics - which, in the context of epigenetics, may prove to be a fruitful field from which to draw support for your thread. Others include Dorret Boomsma, John C. Defries, David Fulker, and Steven G. Vanenberg. Be careful, however, as the idea that behavior might modify genetics will be quite difficult to discuss - especially given the climate of that forum. I'd look into behavioral genetics with epigenetics included.
  8. Synesthesiac
    LOL @ the gnome :crazy

    The forum is actually an ok place with ok people, but some people take their science FAR too seriously, religously seriously. So if a theory is dis proven, or based on unjustifiable assumptions, they act in a similar way as a christian might if you dis proved the bible, or stated its only a hypothesis and not truth. I kind of made it my own self assigned mission to draw as many comparisons between these people and people with religous beliefs (this is all much more to do with physics than biology, mostly the big bang), thus I angered a good section of the forum for a while, as made a fair few valid points that seemed to touch a lot of nerves.

    And thanks for the other references! I might revive the thread if the mods there let me change the title and the OP.
  9. Jasim
    Synesthesiac, your comments remind me of an argument Alexander Shulgin makes in TiHKAL (it may have been PiHKAL) concerning the zealotry with which some scientists defend their beliefs. He discusses the big bang in particular as an example of this scientific 'faith'.

    Our understanding of the world is based on flawed perception which we use to create flawed models of thinking. It's unavoidable and we must all be skeptics of ourselves to be devote followers of the scientific method. When someone shows me credible evidence that I'm incorrect, I try to use it as a learning experience rather than allow any emotional attachment to my beliefs to hinder my own intellectual development.

    I just want to say that I love reading everything you write Gradient. It often spawns some of the most interesting discussions in the forums and if I took the time to understand it all, then I would learn quite a bit. ;)
  10. Synesthesiac
    Thats awesome information Jasim, if true, as Shulgins up there with some of my heros :D And thats one of my main interests (alternatives to Ex nihilo models I just can not agree with)

    And yes I too am a gradient fan, I swear that im nearly half way through my first year in cellular biology thanks to his forum posts and what I've learnt :laugh: Keep it up grads :thumbsup:
  11. Jasim
    It's chapter 18 in TiHKAL titled: What Big Bang?
    I think you can find it here if you're interested: [noparse][/noparse]
  12. Gradient
    Thanks guys! Nice to know someone actually reads these words.

    Wish I'd gotten through first year cellular bio...;)
  13. Synesthesiac
    Right a few thoughts about this interesting subject I posted elsewhere. Just realised they would be a good addition here. Im gonna try to uproot the entire field of neurochemistry quickly, in my usual arrogant fasion (then get my argument torn apart as usual lol. Good way to learn though I find). Appologies if I repeat things already stated in the OP by gradient, some of it I dont quite comprehend.

    Most of this material I read from Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, basically you may have heard of the idea, sometimes labelled "quantum consciousness". More details on specific consciousness models in the literture, below is a rough overview I wrote elsewhere outlining the argument for it.

    The problem that I see with the traditional brain = mind = computer is that it should mean that when a computer gets up to the processing ability of a human it should become conscious. I very much doubt that it would, AI proponents frequently make that claim, but there is absolutely no evidence that machines can be conscious in any way, or could be in the future. They will always do what our consciousness programs them to do.

    The problem with this is that the people who make these claims (that the brain is nothing more than a computer) assume that the neurons in the brain, and their connections, the synapses, work as fundamental units. So for example we have roughly ten billion neurons, with about a thousand or ten thousand connections to other neurons, which gives us about 10^15 operations per second, with each neuron acting as a fundamental unit. The problem that i see with that is that neurons are much, much more complex than a simple switch. For example, consider a single cell, like a paramecium, it swims around, it finds food, if you suck it into a capillary tube it escapes, and if you do it again it will do it quicker and quicker each time, so it can learn, it can find mates, it has a sex life, it does all kinds of things. It does not have any neurons whatsoever, it is just one cell.

    So If a paramecium can do all these things why should we think that a neuron, or a synapse, is just a simple on off switch? The capacity of a neuron seems much greater than that.

    Then if you go down to the next level of the cell and ask how it does that, it uses its internal structure, the cytoskeleton, which seems like a structural support but it is also the nervous system within each cell, mainly comprised of microtubules, which are hollow cylindrical polymers that seemingly are perfectly designed to be information processing devices at the molecular level. They are the nervous systems within each cell, and the nervous system within each neuron too. So these proteins (that’s what they are made of) switch much faster than neurons and there is many, many more of them, ten million within each cell for example, switching within nano seconds. So if we think of processing going down to that level there is as much processing going on at that level as there is in the whole brain (according to the AI type estimates). So if we think that information processing in the brain goes down to the level of microtubules we roughly increase the information capacity from 10^15 to 10^27, so that pushes the goal way further for the AI people.

    The problem with that is that even if we go down to that level and accept that microtubules are the fundamental units of consciousness, that still does not explain why we have experience, why we have emotions, feeling, what philosophers call qualia. That’s just more reductionism, but it does not solve the problem. Like the problem of free will, or binding of preconsciousness to consciousness, or any of the other anomalies relevant to consciousness. However when you get down to the smallest level, the quantum level, everything changes and it is not deterministic with definate outcomes, and this is where the explanation for consciousness could lie in my opinion. And may be where our free will originates from our consciousness, so we are not merely living lives predetermined by the laws of physics but use the probabilities and possibilities in QT to create definate consciously decided changes.
  14. Synesthesiac
    crikey I don't half talk some rubbish when sleep deprived. *mental note: must remember sarcasm tags, and to avoid attempting jokes when tired*

    If any of the above confuses you I will be happy to restate it now of more able mind.
  15. Crazy Insane Sanity
    I was just re-reading this blog, and I noticed the video link. For some reason I don't remember watching the video last time, but I just wanted to say it was really interesting...especially since I'm actually studying cellular biology in finer detail right now. Thanks for sharing it!
  16. Synesthesiac
    yes I saw that video a while back and it really makes you wonder about the nature of different scales of existence in the universe. At that scale the goings on seem as detailed as our scale, yet we are consciously completely oblivious to it. Without wanting to derail this thread any more (this is one of my favorite subjects to contemplate) it makes you wonder if there is a fractal scaling relationship to the make up of the universe (cosmology studies imply a fractal dimension of 2, borne out by many studies on all observable scales of the universe). Also universality shows that different scale systems can show the same characteristics at a phase transitions, in contrast scale invariant entities and fields do not change regardless of scale. You can use the renormalization group to demonstrate the changes in different scales of a real world system. For example the fourth, and main state of matter (plasma) shows remarkable self similarity transformtions, from nano-meters to near galactic sizes plasma structures can share the near exact same morphology. Would be kinda weird if we found a subatomic scale by using new measuring techniques that due to universality was basically physically the same as our scale of reality with the same laws and buildup (would likely have to discover a sub plank scale reality or sub photon visualisation method, or another novel idea)

    Hang on. Im gonna stop. I think I should start a new blog for this!
  17. Gradient
    Synesthesiac, many would certainly agree with the issues you raise regarding the brain-to-computer analogy. One of my favorite (if not my all-time favorite) neurophilosophers, Patricia Churchland, confronted this long-standing analogy in her 2002 book, Brain-Wise. She asserts that brains are profoundly unlike digital computers for several reasons. First, spatial knowledge is not stored in any 'hard drive', as none exist in the context of the nervous system; nervous systems do not have a memory module, independent of structures whose province is information processing. This point can be generalized: brains don't present discrete modules such that digital systems do, but rather regions whose activity is fundamentally associative. While brains do exhibit areas of functional specialization, the specialization exists with a degree of functional modifiability incompatible with the idea of 'encapsulated, dedicated modules.' Secondly, neurons - unlike digital chips - grow and develop, or prune back/die. This occurs throughout development - and in some areas, into adulthood. Accordingly, they are dynamical entities, and change structurally as they learn (form following function) - thereby abandoning old associations, and enhancing salient ones.

    Thirdly, and this may have some bearing on our prior dialogue, changes in neuronal structure are often predicated upon changes in gene expression - and certain genes are activated as a consequence of modified level of activity characterizing the neuron. The level to which conscious thought can modify gene expression, however, is debatable. Fourth, neuronal events occur within a temporal resolution of milliseconds, rather than far more rapid events in computer systems (she states 4-5 orders of magnitude faster). Fifth, reductively speaking, nervous systems are organized as parallel systems while computers are serial.

    A sixth reason she poses emerges from an evolutionary biology approach: computers were designed to crunch numbers efficiently, while nervous systems evolved via natural selection to move bodies adaptively - which are fundamentally distinct functions. Finally, she states that not all ~10^12 neurons in the nervous system perform identical functions; some perform cognitive functions, while others are responsible for regulating physiological processes, and others perform functions we've yet to understand - which contrasts with the easily identifiable facets of digital systems responsible for information processing.

    Personally, I believe the strongest contrast is derived from the mechanism by which information is stored and processed in each system. Generally and reductively speaking, computers process information via discrete storage and processing units. In the brain, however, the structures responsible for processing information are identical to those that undergo structural & chemical modification to store information. I remember one neurophilosophy professor suggested that, while the brain isn't accurately compared to computer systems - individual neurons might be, rendering the analogy of brain-to-computer as more similar to an amalgam of communicating computers.

    I believe the intuition to compare the systems arises from the nature of binary and the concept that neurons are either excited or inhibited - or, in other words, 1/0 compared to +/-. While this is a fair comparison, upon contextualizing this activity, it becomes obvious that neural systems accommodate levels of complexity that are orders of magnitude higher than current digital systems - predominantly attributable to the dynamical and associative properties of neurons.

    Derail away, Synesthesiac! It's not as though my blog entries have anything more than a wavering sense of theme - so pretty much anything is fair game.

    Glad you enjoy the video, CIS. I remember watching each of my bio professors wet their pants after seeing it.
  18. Gradient
    I like the concept of, for lack of a better term, a spectrum of consciousness. Iterations of consciousness are observable from a wide variety of animals - but when compared to that of humans, there consistently appears to be something lacking. Human brains are indeed similar to those of other mammals, sharing about 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and about 90% of that in mice. Sensory signals in the gustatory, olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory systems are comprised of highly similar routes to those of humans' in other mammals and even fish; signals from taste buds on the palate of humans and catfish are transmitted via the seventh cranial nerve into the medulla to the nucleus of the solitary tract, and finally upwards to the peribrachial nucleus. In the human brain, however, additional routes exist - assumedly enriching the sensory experience - that transmit signals from the solitary tract directly to the thalamus. I've yet to see a convincing argument suggesting that consciousness is anything but a biological process performed by specialized cells and tissues comparable, but arguably more complex, than reproduction or metabolism. Accordingly, the complexity of consciousness is directly a function of the complexity of the tissue performing its function - the brain. Given that brain damage or neurodegenerative disorders, causing damage to specific neural tissues, tragically act to reduce a given individual's cognitive capacities - the complexity of such tissues must determine typical cognitive capacities.

    Penrose and Hameroff have presented highly technical explanations for how microtubules are potentially the substrate for consciousness - and for me, it's a seductive concept that's disappointingly lacking in evidence. Penrose cites the Godel Incompleteness Theorems - which demonstrate the limitations inherent to complex mathematics - to support the assertion that the nature of mathematical understanding must transcend the kind of computation that neuronal networks can conceivably accommodate. He provides quantum gravity, which is without a consistent or complete theory/model, is the likely process hosted by microtubules to sustain consciousness. I'm not convinced that this is a better explanation than any other to explain consciousness, primarily due to the fact that there really isn't any hard evidence to support the theory, which is unfortunately also untestable - and still doesn't seem to provide a cogent explanation for the occurrence of consciousness.

    Hameroff believes that microtubules are affected by hydrophobic anesthetics in a way that causes loss of consciousness - despite the fact that there is no evidence that loss of consciousness under anesthesia is dependent upon the changes in microtubule activity that Penrose and Hameroff allude to. In fact, there's only indirect evidence that anesthetics have an effect on microtubules whatsoever. If we accepted that microtubules do indeed present such quantum processes, wouldn't the millivolt fluctuations of neurons intensely influence the quantum coherence required for conscious states? Other issues with 'Quantum Consciousness' include the fact that mathematical logicians tend to disagree with Penrose on the implications of Godel's theorems for brain function; the link between conscious sensory experiences and the theorems are unclear at best.

    While I'm not personally captivated by the desire to localize consciousness to specific neural substrates, I would never suggest that inquiry by means of the scientific method and innovations in neuroscience are incapable of doing so. Given the significant progress already made in the neurosciences regarding many questions regarding consciousness, it would seem that further progress is eminently possible. While the pursuit may indeed reach insurmountable obstacles, there's absolutely no reason to believe that such obstacles have already been encountered.
  19. Synesthesiac
    Brilliant posts above gradient, thanks for the info :thumbsup:
  20. ninjaned
    That was incredibly informative. If you wrote a book on this subject I would buy it.
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